People, the name of the show is "Shark Tank," not "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," even if the desired end result is the same thing. That means Mark Cuban will not let you phone a friend. Anyone pitching their businesses needs to know what that business really is, how much money they need, how they'll spend it, who their market is and--most importantly--be able to tell the sharks how they'll make a lot of money if they invest.
Sadly, several of the folks pitching in Friday's new episode hadn't done their "Shark Tank" homework. I mean, honestly, you can replay the shows here for free to see just what exactly prompts the sharks to go into a feeding frenzy and what provokes them to tear an unprepared businessperson limb from limb. Luckily, a number of these businesses still got deals, proving either that a good idea will always rise to the top or, more likely, as my father used to say, that God looks out for drunks, fools and little children.
Once again, these were all good, interesting and novel products, and the entrepreneurs behind them had worked long and heard. But several came in far too early to pitch, with meager sales of less than a year. More dangerous was the fact that in many cases the people hadn't--or couldn't--define who their customers were and the size of that market.
Let's look at the most intriguing business to pitch Friday.
Mont Handley of Pittsburgh was looking for $600,000 for 25 percent of his company, which manufactures an environmentally friendly, more efficient and less expensive alternative to peat moss. Handley really knew his business, and his fascination with peat moss went back to a job out of college. While peat moss sells at an average of $2.50 a cubic foot, PittMoss sells for $2, has a longer shelf life and uses less water, making PittMoss one of the rate "green" products that actually is cheaper than the more wasteful currently popular product.
Handley conceived the alternative, which uses recycled newspaper, years ago and, when he turned 50, quit his job to make the business happen. That included cashing out his 401(k) retirement account to built a plant to prove his concept. And that's part of the problem, the sharks find out: The plant can make only 200 tons a year, producing just $60,000 in revenue.
The other numbers are even less encouraging, but at least Handley is up front about it, telling the sharks, "I'll be honest--our sales suck." It took Handley two months to make his first sale, and he's sold only $22,000 of PittMoss in seven months. He has $168,000 in sales agreements, and needs capital to expand.
Lori Greiner doesn't see the strategy, which seems to focus on commercial greenhouses but lacks focus, and thinks it's an unproven business that will take a lot of time to educate customers, so she's out. Barbara Corcoran thinks that everything about the business is conjecture, not proven accomplishments. Plus, faux peat moss ain't sexy, so she bails.
When Handley mentions that he's about to close a round of angel funding in two days for $400,000 in convertible notes, the sharks perk up. Kevin O'Leary and Mark Cuban wonder if he'll walk away from his angel deal if he can get an investment from the sharks, which would put Handley dangerously close to selling more than 50 percent control.
Then Handley says one of the first things that should have come out of his mouth: Many governments are banning the harvesting of peat moss because of the release of carbon from the process and the environmental damage. The United Kingdom, which uses 70 million cubic feet of peat each year, is banning the use of peat for household use by the end of the decade, and for commercial use by 2030.
This brings in the offers. Robert Herjavec wants in, but wants to limit it to $200,000. O'Leary offers the full $600,000 for 40 percent, Handley counters with 30 percent, and they settle on 35 percent before Cuban jumps in, telling Handley, "You really know your stuff, "and the three sharks agree to split the deal three ways.
Afterward, Handley chokes up: "This means I can really make a living at the dream I've had for 20 years," he says.
Mark Melni, Armond Eckart and Byron Dunn have a new product that will change the way electrical connections are made, replacing difficult expensive crimp connectors that take 10 to 15 minutes to use with a new product that connects power lines in a few seconds. Dunn, in fact, is a lineman who's so impressed he invested $50,000 with no valuation in the company.
The trio seeks $50,000 for 5 percent of the company. The connectors cost $15 to make and wholesale for $39 in industrial applications, but here's the rub: They've got one order for $585,000 from an irrigation supplier, and that's it for sales so far. Says Kevin: "You're out of your minds."
Greiner, Corcoran and Herjavec are confused by a less-than-stellar presentation, but think the targeting of the product is too unfocused (they've pitched Home Depot and Lowe's as well as commercial clients) and the business is too young.
But Mark Cuban is impressed, noting that when he started the Internet radio company AudioNet, nobody understood what he was doing, either. Calling it "FOMO investing"--Fear Of Missing Out--Cuban notes, "Everybody you've come into contact with has put their money where their mouth is." He offers $500,000 for 12 percent and an option to put in another $1 million for 15 percent.
Even though he standing there with two partners, founder Mark Melni asks, "Can I make a call?"
"Hell no!" Cuban answers.
After a few tense moments of silence, they take the deal. Says Cuban: "Let's go make whatever that is."
Beneath the Ink
Alex Milewski and Sherisse Hawkins want $350,000 for 10 percent of their company, which enhances digital books with links to background information, pictures, maps, definitions and more without connecting to the Internet. The company is pre-revenue, raised $640,000 in a first round, and has just eight of what it calls "Binked" titles published, though market studies show readers would pay more for Binked books.
All around, the sharks don't see it. The company would need some major authors or publishers to get behind the technology to get it widely adapted, likely buying its way into the market. Says Cuban: "It's just too early."
Danielle Stangler and Julia Rossi, two moms from Castle Rock, Colo., want $150,000 for 20 percent of their company, which makes flavored baby facial wipes that won't cause kids to scream and fight when parents try to clean the kids up. They make it for 72 cents, sell it for $3.99 and can get the price down to 53 cents if they scale. NeatCheeks are in 40 locations and a 90-test in two Walgreens drug stores brought in a 30-day rapid reorder. They want to roll it out regionally with Walgreens.
When O'Leary hears that normal wipes sell for $1.99, and that the women plan to take it to a trade show, he fears that competitors will copy the idea and crush them "like cockroaches." Cuban thinks it's too early and when Herjavec and Corcoran hear that the two moms--who've been working four years on the business--want to partially pay themselves out of the capital, they're out, with lectures.
But when Greiner offers $150,000 for 30 percent of the company, contingent on the ability of Stangler and Rossi to get a patent, Corcoran offers $150,000 for 25 percent--if they'll add a cherry flavor. Greiner pulls her contingency, and Corcoran counters that her entrepreneurs are one big happy family. Lori echoes that sentiment about her entrepreneurs, as O'Leary mockingly sings, "Kumbaya" in the background. They go with Corcoran, who busts out a happy family victory dance.
Brian O'Connor is author of the forthcoming book, Everything I Needed to Know About Business I Learned From Shark Tank (An Unofficial Guide), coming this fall from Riverdale Avenue Books.